A Silent Exchange

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I think a lot about the day this picture was taken. It was on a cliff at the edge of the sea in Esalen, Big Sur, while doing my 300-hour yoga teacher training this past summer. And the story behind it is one of my favorites.

My friend, photographer, and fellow trainee, Nina, and I were scheduled to do a photo shoot while at Esalen, and Janet (our teacher) surprised us — as she often does — by announcing the day before that the next day would be our 24 hours of silence. I remember Nina and I just looking at each other from across the practice room with wide eyes. How the heck are we going to have a silent photoshoot?? We chatted afterwards, and I have Nina to thank for calming my nerves, saying we’d figure it out, but also making a hard commitment to the silence (since we could’ve cheated a little and talked since no one would’ve been around for the shoot). So I trusted that it would all unfold as it should. I kinda had to.

And with that, the next morning, our day of silence began. We were given a whole free day to do whatever we wanted, which was a huge luxury considering we spent almost every day in training, without much free time to play. The rules were we had to were our “In Silence” lanyard around our necks so other Esalen guests would know not to engage in conversation, and we obviously couldn’t talk at all, to anyone. We were also encouraged to not read or listen to music, and instead take the time to be reflective. So, the next morning I woke up late, relishing in not having to be up at 5:15am. I went down to the dining hall for my usual breakfast of oatmeal, prunes, granola, and a hard boiled egg. A couple of my friends from the group were there, but most had already been up and around. Those who I did see there, we just ate quietly, while shooting little smiles at each other.

I went up to our space to practice my Morning Nine sun salutations, and then went up to the baths to soak in silence, with my sweet friend Ashlee soaking silently next to me. Remember you saw that pelican flock? The beauty of Esalen is that there not only isn’t very much Wifi (only after mealtimes, and we weren’t allowed to be on our phones that day anyway) but there’s also NO signal. Phones become obsolete, useless, and a blockage between you and the beauty of this land and the people it holds. So the options on what to do with yourself are incredibly and wonderfully limited — you do some yoga, you eat, you soak in a tub, you sit on the lawn, you watch the sunset, you talk with your new friends, you read, you go to bed. This truly was probably the biggest gift this place gave me — space to truly connect by peeling away everything that wasn’t part of my present-moment experience.

So then I went to my favorite little spot — the little “dock” on the big lawn, which was just a couple of planks of wood in the middle of the grass. And so I laid in the Big Sur sun, and drew and journaled and thought about life and thought about nothing. It was amazing.

Evening came, and it was time for our shoot. Nina signed to me to follow her and we walked down the winding paths, across the bridge, all the way to a little DO NOT PASS sign (we passed) that led to the rocks by the ocean. We promptly hopped over the fence and made our way down the cliff. As we got onto the rocks and began the shoot, she signed to me to relax, to smile, to breath, to just close my eyes and soften — all the cues I needed to shake off all of the awkwardness I felt taking photos, with the added weirdness of absolutely no talking happening. She wrote down for me to think of my favorite mudra and what it invokes in my heart, and that’s when it all just began to unfold.

We got into the flow. With Nina’s amazing (silent) direction, we got some of my most favorite yoga shots I’ve ever taken. And as we wrapped up, both of us a little damp and salty, we started our quiet trek back to the grounds. I remember feeling so happy on that walk back, knowing those photos would hold something especially magical. That shared silent interaction showed me the huge power of sharing an experience without filler — just raw, pure, clear moments with an incredible soul surrounded by the sounds of the sea. I feel like our friendship grew after that experience, and it’s really funny to think that that happened without one word being exchanged.

The entire day taught me about the power of truly just being with yourself, and how deeply this can calm the heart and open up insights to ourselves we would’ve never accessed amidst the chaos, noise, and one thousand distractions of our everyday lives. Our internal landscape is a beautiful, messy place, and the practice of observing this part of ourselves through silence is powerful, to say the least.

Thank you, Nina, for sharing this experience with me (and the incredible photos). Thank you, Janet, for creating this container of silence, and always encouraging us past our comfort zones. And thank you, Esalen, for making every single day on your grounds a magical one.

I guess a photo is worth a thousand words, even one taken in silence.